Mixing jobs with politics

May 12, 1994|By Scott Higham and Eric Siegel | Scott Higham and Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writers

Baltimore's liquor board does business the old-fashioned way.

One liquor board employee runs campaigns for a powerful state senator. Others solicit political donations from bars they regulate -- an apparent violation of state law. Another is seen at a political fund-raiser, hanging around with a businessman lobbying for a liquor license.

The Board of Liquor License Commissioners -- under investigation by a city grand jury -- is a testament to the power and problems of political patronage. It's an agency riddled with potential conflicts of interest -- where board employees blend politics and business almost as freely as bartenders mix scotch and water.

The liquor board's three commissioners and its 33 full- and part-time inspectors are selected by state senators, whose political interests are then advanced by the employees. Inspectors John "Bernie" Martin and Leo Martin, for example, acknowledge that they have solicited campaign contributions for the senators from bars and restaurants they are assigned to regulate.

Inspectors in Baltimore cover fewer businesses than do their counterparts in most other major U.S. cities. And most are placed on the public payroll without any qualifications.

Most cities have scrapped the patronage system, citing payoffsand political favors.

A city grand jury is investigating whether that is occurring in Baltimore, where the liquor board has sweeping power over 1,608 establishments and its decisions to approve or deny licenses can shape the character of entire neighborhoods.

Police and prosecutors became suspicious of the board last year. State undercover troopers investigating The Block found drug-peddling and prostitution so commonplace that they couldn'tunderstand why the board permitted the seedy dance bars to stay open.

"We were amazed," said state police Maj. John Cook, who headed the drug investigation.

After the Jan. 14 state police raid on The Block, prosecutors convened a grand jury to investigate. The grand jury is examining claims -- contained in a search warrant affidavit -- that liquor board inspectors took bribes from the nude dance bars and that a board employee had a secret business partnership with one of the clubs.

Board members said they aren't sure why the grand jury is investigating. "We don't know what they're looking at," Commissioner Charles E. "Tommy" Thompson said.

Since the grand jury investigation began, more troubles have surfaced at the liquor board. Last month, board attorney Mark Keener resigned, citing the appearance of a conflict of interest by an inspector. The board then suspended the inspector, Bernie Martin, after a string of claims that he was becoming too cozy with the people he was assigned to regulate.

The commissioners who supervise the agency acknowledge that political patronage is creating problems. They say they have recommended reforms to state senators, but nothing ever happened.

"Is it antiquated?" board Chairman George G. Brown asked. "Yes."

Political plums

The liquor board is one of the last strongholds of patronage in Baltimore. Formed in the days after Prohibition, the board was built on the principle that public jobs were the property of the politicians.

Under state law, drafted by Baltimore senators years ago, liquor board commissioners and inspectors serve at the pleasure of politicians. The people responsible for changing the law: the nine senators representing the city.

L In political circles, the jobs are taxpayer-supported plums.

Senators name the commissioners and inspectors; the governor has the final say on who gets appointed. Senators use the jobs to reward election workers or to employ out-of-work constituents.

The jobs also are plums for the people appointed to the board. The hours are flexible. The work isn't hard. And the pay -- $18,800 a year for inspectors, plus full benefits -- isn't bad for checking out bars and restaurants.

There are no qualifications. There is no test and no training manual.

"We have no control over who walks through that door," Mr. Brown said.

He and other commissioners say most of their inspectors do a good job. Once inspectors are hired, they answer to the board before they answer to their political patrons, board members say.

"We have control over the inspectors," Mr. Brown said, "not the senators."

In Baltimore, inspectors cover fewer businesses than do inspectors in most other major U.S. cities, according to a sampling of liquor boards around the country. In Baltimore, there are 49 liquor licenses per inspector, the fewest among the 10 cities sampled. San Francisco has 526 licenses per inspector; Chicago has 750.

Other cities also have qualifications for liquor inspectors. In many of the cities sampled, inspectors must have a college education and some investigative or law enforcement experience, and must pass a test or take police training courses. In none of the other cities sampled are the inspectors politically appointed.

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